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December 16, 2015

Need for tact & prudence today as we recall December 16, 1971


December 16, 2015

I dedicate my column this year on the events of December 16, 1971 to the memory of Salahuddin Qadir Chowdhry who was sent to the gallows in Dhaka last month for a crime he never committed. Salahuddin was a proud son of a proud father-the late Fazlul Qadir Chowdhry, the Speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan in the 1960s. He belonged to a distinguished family, was faithful to his country, Pakistan and then Bangladesh, and served both with equal commitment rising to the position of a minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Khalida Zia. I remember him as my junior in what was then the East Pakistan Cadet College in Faujdarhat, a few kilometers from Chittagong. Alas, he fell prey to the vengeance and vendetta of a daughter who, forty years after the tragic and brutal assassination of her father and other members of her family, is unable to forget the past and move ahead. Living in the past suits her somewhat but suits her patrons more.

I dedicate this column also to the memory of those innocent children, boys and girls, men and women, who were brutally and cowardly shot and martyred by a group of savages who cannot be called humans. They claim to be Muslims but bear only its name. They carry the name but none of its attributes. And the guns that they carry on their shoulders bear, in my view, marks that are not different from the fire that was ignited in what was then East Pakistan in 1971. Farfetched? Perhaps. Improbable? No. I write these words with the plea and the prayer that no other Salahuddin Qadir Chowdhry of Bangladesh meets the same fate for that is what will continue to happen if our so called champions of human rights, both at home and overseas, do not raise their voices to save these innocent people. The international community must lend its ears and turn its eyes to these innocent killings, to these blatant miscarriages of justice.

December 16 this year has a special significance. The events unfolding in Sindh, although distinctly different from what was happening in the then East Pakistan in 1971, do demand a retrospection as indeed a deep introspection by all the stakeholders. The obvious difference in the two situations is the propellant. The propellant in the situation in the then East Pakistan was a desire to preserve the threatened identity of a people who, in terms of population, were a larger partner of a federating unit. What is happening in Sindh today has a different propellant. It is the desire of a small coterie to preserve, at all costs, what it has gained at the cost of the people and the state. It is a desire to keep the store keeper away so that the store can continue to be robbed. The difference is in the intent and in the motivation. The need for tact and prudence, however, remains as important today as it was forty four year ago. And, in my view, the 18th constitutional amendment has made things worse. The Federation today is weaker, having been deprived of its legitimate tools to rein in the law breakers, the looters and the plunderers, all in the name of provincial autonomy.

December 16, 1971 did not happen in a day. Those who never accepted the division of the South Asian subcontinent and the creation of an independent Pakistan had started sowing the seeds of disintegration from its very birth. Having said that, I will reiterate that Bangladesh was not born in a day. However, I must also emphasise that although an unnecessary provocation, it was not the declaration of Urdu the national language in 1951 that led to the creation of Bangladesh as believed by some. Dismissing the popularly elected government of East Bengal by those at the helm in the western wing of the country was also an unnecessary provocation but it did not lead to a movement for liberation nor did the absolutely unwarranted renaming of East Bengal as East Pakistan which prompted Sheikh Mujibur Rehman to declare in the constituent Assembly in Karachi in 1955 that the name Bengal will now only be heard in the Bay of Bengal. All these were avoidable irritants in the relations between the two wings of Pakistan. But the real fire that engulfed the edifice was the announcement from Islamabad on the first of March, 1971 postponing the inaugural session of the newly elected National Assembly of Pakistan.

As I had written two years ago, Bangladesh was effectively born on March 1, 1971 when the military and the political establishment in the western wing joined hands to postpone the inaugural session of the newly elected National Assembly. They had decided not to hand over the reins of government to the legitimately elected Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who would have been the rightful Prime Minister of Pakistan had the session been held. To be fair to him, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not declare independence even on that fateful day. A crowd of nearly twenty thousand people charged out of a cricket match being played at the Dhaka stadium between Pakistan and the visiting MCC team and marched straight to the nearby Purbani hotel where the Awami League Executive Committee was in session. The match was postponed. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was forced by the Tufail Ahmed, the president of the students wing of the Awami League, to come out and address the crowd. He was asked to declare independence then and there. He did not. He was grim and glum but kept quiet. But that was the beginning of the end. From there on, it was a peoples’ movement. The reins of the movement were not in his hands.

There was mayhem and massacre all over. It was beyond anyone’s control, least of all the small contingent of Pakistan army that was restricted to the small cantonments of Dhaka, Comilla and Jessore, barley surviving the blockade of goods and services until March 26, when the somewhat reinforced army cracked down in an attempt to take charge. But it was too little too late. The ill-intended decision to postpone the National Assembly session and deprive the elected leader of his right to form the government in Islamabad led to the separation of East Pakistan. I will repeat that Bangladesh was actually conceived on March 1, 1971 and delivered nine months later on December 16, 1971. We set our own house on fire. And as at last truthfully accepted by Prime Minister Modi, India was only too happy to add fuel to the fire, having waited for it for 25 years.

The writer is a former federal secretary

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